Science·What on Earth?

The gift-card conundrum: Convenience with an environmental cost

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the eco-cost of gift cards, which banks are investing the most in fossil fuel development and some more reader tips on green gift-giving.

Also: More of your green gift ideas

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • The gift-card conundrum: Convenience with an environmental cost
  • Which banks are investing the most in fossil fuel development?
  • Readers provide more green gift-giving options

The gift-card conundrum: Convenience with an environmental cost

(Emily Chung/CBC)

In our callout for greener gifting ideas, some readers suggested gift certificates for things like a show, a restaurant or, more traditionally, a store.

Gift cards can be a great last-minute option, and they're very popular — in fact, they were the most popular holiday gift in a recent online survey of Canadians, more than half of whom planned to buy gift cards for their loved ones.

But they, too, have an environmental impact. Many gift cards are made of PVC plastic, which is hard to recycle and isn't accepted by most recycling systems.

While they're small and slim, their popularity means they add up — in 2014, two billion gift cards were purchased in the U.S. alone, according to an estimate by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

Giftrocket, a company that offers e-gift cards, estimates that each physical card contains about five grams of PVC and generates 21 grams of CO2. That means in total, gift cards created 10,000 tonnes of PVC waste and 42,000 tonnes of CO2 in the U.S. alone in 2014.

So, what to do? Here are some options:

  • Some retailers, like Starbucks and Whole Foods, offer recyclable cardboard gift cards (see above photo).

  • Many others offer gift cards that can be printed onto a sheet of paper.

  • E-gift cards can be sent via email and printed out or redeemed online or from your phone.

  • Some small businesses just keep a note of credit that you can redeem when you get to the store.

  • If you have a plastic gift card that you've already spent, you can often reload it and re-gift it to someone else.

If you really want to recycle gift cards after using them and have a way of collecting a big volume, they can be recycled by a company named Terracycle, which specializes in recycling materials that normally aren't recyclable. The company charges $91 to recycle a "small" box (25 x 25 x 46 centimetres) full of plastic cards.

Some Canadian municipalities — for example, Strathcona in Alberta and Niagara Region in Ontario — allow people to drop off spent gift cards at certain depots for recycling. (The Municipality of Strathcona uses Terracycle as its gift card recycler.)

Whatever you choose to do, think about what the gift card or certificate can be used to buy — the environmental impact of that purchase is probably much bigger than that of the card itself.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Last call for New Year's resolutions!

Email us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Fossil fuel financing

This week, American investment giant Goldman Sachs pledged to stop financing oil and gas drilling projects in the Arctic, as well as new thermal coal development worldwide. This is a significant turn of events, given the pivotal role banks play in the development of major fossil fuel projects, be they oil and gas fields or coal mines. (As part of its recent announcement, Goldman Sachs also committed to investing $750 billion in sustainable ventures over the next decade.) Here's a look at the institutions that invested the most worldwide in fossil fuel projects last year — you'll notice it includes three Canadian ones.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • We all know that beavers are industrious little critters, and that the dams they build are wonders of engineering. New research suggests these structures can be key in staving off wildfire damage along rivers. Basically, the researchers found that the channels beavers dig keep the surrounding vegetation wet, and thus better protected from the ravages of fire.
  • While some Canadian provinces are still fighting the federal government's carbon tax, the citizens of Germany have been agitating for a higher levy — and the 16 regional governments there have agreed to a framework that would more than double the tax on carbon dioxide emissions from transport and heating.
  • In the interests of ending the year on a positive note, Michael Liebreich, a senior contributor at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, published a blog post entitled "Peak Emissions Are Closer Than You Think." Reflecting on the progress of the last decade, he argues that trends like the precipitous cost decline of renewable energy and battery packs as well as growing awareness of energy efficiency will aid massively in helping the world decarbonize in the next decade.

More green gift ideas from readers


This may be our last issue of the year, but there's still time to sort out your gift-giving decisions, which is why we wanted to share a few more suggestions from readers for environmentally responsible options.

Kenn Hazen wrote that "since 1964, I have been doing Christmas differently." His concept? Choosing gifts from charity catalogues and then giving a card to a loved ones "to tell them what we did." 

Hazen said that "over the years, I've bought tools to help a poor farmer grow produce; pigs and chickens for an orphanage in Uganda to help them be self-sufficient; soccer balls to help child victims of adult wars learn how to play again; and school supplies so Third World kids could go to school."

He said the "ideas are endless if you want to get in on the real meaning of Christmas and be a good world citizen."

Virginia Crawford asked us to pass along the gift she gave her husband for Christmas in 2018: carbon offsets. 

"He is passionate about the climate crisis and social justice and it's his life's work as a United Church minister in Halifax. To complement this work, for his gift, I took a closer look at our household CO2 emissions for 2018 and offset them by buying carbon offsets throughout 2019 (it was too expensive to do in one shot). He was so happy with the gift and he encouraged me to tell our story to others."

Kiirsti Owen said she is a big proponent of buying things second-hand. "I think there's this weird idea out there that gifts must be new. I've bought really nice picture frames from second-hand stores. Books are another easy one to buy used. The item isn't any less valuable to the receiver, and it's more affordable for the buyer!"

Susan Carlton weighed in with some wrapping ideas, though none more original than a charming story from last year involving her son-in-law. He "drilled a hole in a coconut, drained it, then wrote the gift (a service or experience) on a piece of paper and inserted the paper into the hole. The recipient then had to smash open the coconut with a hammer." (Carlton noted that the family has "also done this with a balloon" — though presumably without the hammer.)

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?